Camping in Provence

From plunging canyon to glamorous seafront, Provence is a thrilling adventure ride – especially from behind the wheel of a vintage campervan, says Zoë McIntyre

The ride around Gorge du Verdon is life on the edge. My road-trip partner does the drive, white-knuckles clamped on the wheel, while I steal nervous glances over the crumbling cliff edge. It reveals a heart-stopping drop into an emerald river snaking its way around the bottom of an abyss. Massive cliffs loom above us, dappled moss-green and canary-yellow with a cover of hardy mountain shrubs that, like us, perilously cling to the vertical.

We are following the tortuously steep, clutch-burning Corniche Sublime that corkscrews its way around the southern rim of Europe’s largest river canyon. Over aeons, it has sliced deep ravines through the vast limestone plateaux in the untamed uplands of Haute-Provence. Twenty-five kilometres long and reaching depths of more than 700 metres, it is a startling natural wonder that only really became known outside of France in the early 20th century. Today, it is a popular destination for seasoned travellers to Provence willing to go the extra mile.

For us, negotiating this wild road in the heart of France’s epic cowboy country is a rather unnerving initiation into the world of campervan driving. Not least because it is our first jaunt in Amélie; a vintage Volkswagen beauty born in Alabama in the hippie heydays of 1968 and now part of a fleet of four owned by British couple Jennie and Matt Tombs who run Provence-based campervan hire company, 69 Campers.

Together they have restored Amélie to its retro glory; from the gleaming powder-blue and ivory paintwork down to its immaculate interior complete with chequerboard flooring, swirl-patterned curtains and vinyl seating. The sleeping space is ample with a roll-out bed and hammocks in the pop-up roof able to accommodate a family of four. Kitted out with contemporary fixtures including gas-powered hob, fridge, sink and plenty of storage, Amélie would serve us well as both home address and ticket to freedom over our three-day trip.

For us pampered by modern motors and all their gizmos, driving Amélie took a little adjustment. Setting off from Jennie and Matt’s home in the medieval village of Seillans, we’d grappled with gear changes and wrestled with the heaving steering as we bunny-hopped along the hilltop village’s steep and narrow medieval streets. Out on the open roads, things had got better; my partner could relax and I was less prone to clutching at the seat at every turn.

Now, against the film-set backdrop of the gorge, Amélie makes us feeling like superstars. She seems to stir up equal amounts of joy and nostalgia in every passerby who wave furiously grinning cheek-to-cheek. When we stop at the point sublime, a giddying look-out point right on the lip of the precipice, another car pulls over too. Backs turned to the view, the couple snap a picture; “what a fantastic set of wheels”, they effuse, panorama evidently forgotten.

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Finally, the road starts descending into gentler terrain that opens up to reveal the village of Aiguines. The view is dominated by a commanding renaissance-style castle with colourful roof turrets glinting in the late afternoon sunshine. As dusk descends, we arrive cheerful and exhausted at the Colombier campsite on the Western edge of the Gorge. Parked up with the roof raised, we fold out chairs and table and get supper on the go. It is enjoyed with a bottle of dusty-pink local rosé under a vast, inky sky thrillingly lit with a million blazing stars.

The serene Colombier campsite boasts excellent facilities including a communal barbeque, table tennis and hot showers. It is also well-placed for visiting on foot the neighbouring Moustiers-Sainte-Marie – a fairy-tale village etched into the side of a rocky cliff. Its tangle of honey-coloured houses straddle both sides of a steep ravine from where rushing water spills down beneath a series of flower-decked bridges.

In high season, Moustiers’ network of narrow cobbled streets and little squares are tightly-packed with tourists sampling the many boutiques and workshops selling glazed faïence pottery – a tradition that has flourished here since the 17th century. Now, in early June, the place is tranquil and timeless; a quintessential slice of Provence without the crowds.

We lunch on the sunny restaurant terrace of Les Santons before braving the steep trail up to the Notre-Dame de Beauvoir chapel, tucked into a rocky outcrop 830 metres above Moustiers. The climb offered a good view of the gold chain slung across two ledges and bearing a single gold star. According to legend, the original star was placed here during the Crusades by knight Bozon de Blacas after returning from imprisonment. Today, it survives as a landmark symbol for the village. After 262 steps, our reward is an impressive view of the village’s tiered terracotta rooftops edged by open fields, olive trees and the distant mountains of the Valensole plateau.

No trip to the gorge would be complete without splashing around in the shimmering waters of Sainte-Croix; the vast artificial lake that sits on the edge of the gorge. From the pebbled beach beside the Pont du Galetas bridge, we hire kayaks and follow the procession of jolly pedalo-riders and electric-boaters making their way between immense canyon walls along the sinuous waterway of the canyon. Those more daring explorers will find rock climbing, paragliding, canyoning and rafting all popular pursuits here too.

It is a two-hour scenic drive to the glittering Riviera coastline. With the Beatles White Album belting out of Amélie’s speakers, we sashay out way along the serene backroads of la Provence profonde, past olive groves, Cyprus trees and the odd mountain village. It comes as something of a shock to be confronted with roundabouts and queuing traffic as we filtered onto the busier roads heading towards the sea.

The campsite we stop at near Port Grimaud is also a more hectic affair. After niftily pitching up in one of the few remaining spaces near the sandy beachfront and beside the beach-shack bar, we marvel at the variety of vast, bus-like vans and their impressive scope of camping paraphernalia that range from microwaves to front-porch pot plants.

Surrounded by banqueting parties and guitar-led sing-along, we feel rather sheepish on our simple fold-out table, dining on a relatively meagre spread of bread, cheese and charcuterie. Thankfully, our camping inferiority complex is put to rest after a gaggle or passing campers stop to coo over Amélie, happily reminiscing about their reckless hippie days. That night, we fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves safe in the knowledge that, next time, we’d come better prepared for a feast fit for Amélie and her many admirers.

The campsite’s beachfront spot means that we happy campers are well-positioned to roll out of bed and be the first to stake our claim on the sandy shoreline. After an invigorating morning dip we (rather reluctantly) abandon Amélie to catch the shuttle boat from Port Grimaud to Saint-Tropez – a preferred mode of transport to the often traffic-clogged coastal road.

We find Port Grimaud a pleasing port town. Its elegant shutter-fronted houses, each individually painted pastel hues and boasting their own boat-mooring space, decorate a network of waterways lined with tourist shops and seafood restaurants. Setting our sights on Saint-Tropez’s famous ochre pink and yellow tower visible on the horizon, it is an enjoyable 40-minute ride across cobalt waters, strewn with luxurious sailing boats and super yachts.

Saint-Tropez’s longevity as playground to the glitterati is certainly impressive; almost six decades have passed since a pouty 18-year old Brigitte Bardot arrived to film And God Created Woman that transformed the humble fishing town into a limelight-loving pleasure resort. Still now, the chic elite parade the portside while tourists slowly sip overpriced aperitifs in seafront cafes in the hope of sighting a celebrity. Artists displaying their pictures along the waterfront are a pale reflection of when the likes of Paul Signac and Henri Matisse would come to capture Saint-Tropez’s colourful buildings, bathed in limpid Mediterranean sunlight.

Despite the exhibitionism on display along the quayside, it doesn’t take long to find ordinary Provençal life carrying on as usual. Just a boule’s throw away, pétanque players gather in the shade of hundred-year-old plane-trees in the Place des Lices. Its Saint-Tropez’s central square, taken over by a local market each Tuesday and Saturday. The labyrinthine backstreets around the parish church (the place to find a bust of Saint Torpes himself) are blissfully quiet and redolent, full of ivy-clad ochre buildings and little hidden squares.

On possibly the narrowest street in the whole of Saint-Tropez, we find the perfect spot for lunch. Under a broad sun umbrella, we feast on wonderfully fresh seafood salad and tender pavé de boeuf. The set menu is surprisingly reasonable – no wonder our fellow guests were savvy locals. As the animated waiter waxes lyrical about his weekend catch, we savour the essential character of this once sweet little fishing town.

After our dalliance with coastal glamour, we are somewhat relieved to head inland once again to experience more delights of rural Provence. After an hour’s drive, we find ourselves on Route de Bagnol, right in the heart of the Var département’s wine country. Sweeping plains knitted with lush green vines stretch as far as the eye can see. Award-winning wine estates mark the route, each enticing in drivers with the offer of dégustations. We regret our pour timing (it’s now early evening) that prevents us from stopping to fill up Amélie’s trunk with a box or two of wonderful Côtes-de-Provence.

The scenery undergoes a marked change as the gentle slopes of the vineyards give way to rocky rugged hill climbs as we head into the embrace of the extraordinary rusty-red Estérel mountains. The drive up the Gorge de Blavet is bracingly beautiful. The twisting single-track road, deserted of any other motorist, climbs sharply among dense pine forest and saw-toothed ochre rocks, blazing in the fierce southern sunlight.

After swathes of remote countryside, we come upon the sleepy village of St-Paul-en-Forêt, clamped to the side of a hilltop. There, we spend our final night in luxury, at a campsite tucked away on the edge of the village that offers everything from swimming pool to tennis court. The shady, tree-sheltered pitching point we virtually have to ourselves. This time, our evening rituals of alfresco wining and dining is bittersweet as we realise our three days of living the camping dream is all too soon coming to an end.

Reluctantly handing back Amélie’s keys to Jennie and Matt the next morning, we are full of stories about our whirlwind adventure across gorge, seafront, valleys and vineyard and many a perched village. It has enraptured us with the exceptional majesty of Provence and made for a once-in-a-life time campervan experience that we hope will happen again.

FRANCOFILE

GETTING THERE

BY AIR: Zoë travelled to Nice courtesy of Monarch Airlines. Flights to Nice operate from London Gatwick and Birmingham and start from £39.99 one way (£99.76 return).

www.monarch.co.uk

CAMPERVAN HIRE

Amélie was rented from 69 Campers, based in Seillans, an hour’s drive from Nice.

A three-day hire costs from €445 or seven nights from €750 (low season).

Pick-up from Nice to Seillans costs €85 each way or public transport is available.

Tel: (Fr) 4 83 11 17 75

http://69campers.com

WHERE TO STAY

Gorge du Verdon

Camping le Vieux Colombier

Quartier Saint Michel 04360

Moustier-Sainte-Marie

Tel: (Fr) 4 92 74 61 89

Serene three-star campsite walking distance from Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Price from €16.60 for two with a campervan.

Port Grimaud

Camping de la Plage

R.D. 559 Grimaud

Tel: (Fr) 4 94 56 49 61

www.camping-de-la-plage.fr

Three-star camping right on the beach with views across to Saint-Tropez. Price from €26.50 for two with campervan.

St-Paul-en-Fôret

Camping le Parc

408 Chemin Trestaure

83440 Fayence

Tel: (Fr) 4 94 76 15 35

www.campingleparc.com

A welcoming four-star family-friendly campsite with top facilities including a swimming pool and tennis courts. Price from €17 for two people with campervan.

WHERE TO EAT

Les Santons

Place Pomey, 04360 Moustiers-Saint-Marie

Tel: (Fr) 4 92 74 66 48

www.lessantons.com

A perfectly positioned restaurant for admiring the picturesque village with a three-course set menu from €21.

Bahia

8 Rue des Remparts, 83990 Saint-Tropez

Tel: (Fr) 4 94 54 36 78

An understated spot hidden amid the historic backstreets of the town. Two-course set lunch menu €17.90.

Gloire de mon Père

Place du Thouron, Seillans,

Tel: (Fr) 4 94 60 18 65

www.lagloiredemonpere.fr

Set out on the gorgeous main square of Seillans, main course from €20.

MORE INFORMATION

www.visitprovence.com